October 12, 2016

REVIEW: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1989)


Phantom of the Opera is a 1989 horror film directed by Dwight H. Little, written by Gerry O’Hara, and features Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, Alex Hyde-White, Bill Nighy, Terence Harvey, Stephanie Lawrence, Emma Rawson, and Molly Shannon. Today, the film seems to be best remembered for its haunting orchestral soundtrack, composed by Misha Segal, which is still highly sought after by fans of obscure film scores. Loosely based on the 1910 novel of the same name written by Gaston Leroux, it bears a passing resemblance to the original story, with many changes made to both characters and setting.

The film opens in present-day New York (circa 1989, of course), where a young aspiring opera singer and student, Christine Day (Schoelen), is hunkered down in the basement of a music library, thumbing through mounds of old, dusty music in search of a unique piece to sing for her upcoming audition. Her friend, Meg (Shannon, later of Saturday Night Live fame), comes across a single page of a piece titled “Don Juan Triumphant,” written by a mysterious composer named Erik Destler. Upon researching, the two find little info about Destler but do discover a footnote which posits that he might have been responsible for a string of murders and the disappearance of a young opera singer. With her impeccable sight-reading skills, Christine hums the tune from page, remarking that the music is too gentle to have been written by a man guilty of such atrocities. Having decided that this is the piece she will sing, the two split up to search for the rest of the music, and Christine eventually finds a leather-bound book in the ‘rare and out of print’ section containing the rest of the music. As she looks, the notes on the page begin to drip blood, and she closes the book in shock.

Later at her audition, Christine takes the stage, introducing her self as a second-year student at Julliard, and begins to sing the piece. Above her, a careless stage technician accidentally releases a sand bag which plummets down, smashing a nearby mirror and knocking Christine out. As this transitions the film to the London Opera House in 1881, we hear a mysterious voice chanting, “Christine, Christine, come back to me!” Christine awakens to her friend, Meg (this incarnation from 1881 portrayed by Emma Rawson), helping her up after an accident which mirrors what just transpired on screen in New York, 1989. Here, Christine is the understudy of the diva, La Carlotta, the London Opera’s star singer, and was rehearsing on stage when accident occurred. Meg tells her to get some rest since Carlotta has been stressing her voice, and Christine may have to go on in her stead later.

Far below the London Opera, a mysterious figure sits in darkness, using a rather menacing looking needle and thread and some theater makeup to apply fresh pieces of human skin to his scarred visage. Before him is a picture of Christine, as well as several pages of music. Though we are not privy to the entirety of his scarred face sans “surgery,” we do see his face after he’s finished: the Phantom, a.k.a. Erik Destler (Englund), looking a bit rough even after applying the theater makeup to cover the scars and stitches, albeit normal enough to go out in public at night.

A scene shifter by the name of Joseph, who is at fault for the accident, is talking and drinking with his friends, stating that “the Opera Ghost” is what actually caused the accident. His friends ridicule him, stating that he probably had his eye on the pretty opera singer, and he goes off by himself where he is stalked and eventually confronted on a catwalk by the Phantom. It seems old Erik is none too pleased with being blamed for the accident. Afraid for his life, Joseph states that it won’t happen again, but the Phantom kicks him from the catwalk. Joseph’s foot is caught in one of the sand bag ropes, which breaks his fall before he can hit the ground, but the Phantom, now brandishing a knife, pulls a lever which brings Joseph shooting back upward. As Joseph rockets past the catwalk, the Phantom plunges the knife into him, slicing him open from groin to sternum, killing him.

Later, in Christine’s room, Christine is visited by the Phantom, though indirectly (suggestive camera tricks imply he may be behind the mirror, but it’s never clear where he is actually hiding). It turns out she believes he’s an angel sent to her by her deceased father, and he’s been giving her voice lessons to help her achieve greatness in the opera. He asks her to sing for him, and she obliges, singing the part assigned to her. The Phantom shouts “No!” and commands her to sing the lead part...Carlotta’s part. Christine sings the role of Marguerite from Faust, much to the Phantom’s delight, who says that only she can sing the role as it was meant to be sung.

That evening, Carlotta (Lawrence), who is jealous of Christine’s skill and has done everything in her power to keep her away from the limelight for fear of losing her status to her, is bathing in her private quarters. After finishing, she stands before the mirror of her wardrobe, admiring herself, when she suddenly slips. Looking down, she is horrified to find a large puddle of blood on the floor, and opens the wardrobe to find the skinned body of Joseph. Suddenly, Joseph’s eyes open and he claws out to her, ripping the towel from her body and gurgling “help me!” Carlotta dashes away, screaming so hard she renders her own voice hoarse.

In the wake of the tragedy, the role of Marguerite is assigned to Christine, much to the chagrin of one of the new opera owners, Martin Barton (Nighy). He believes Christine is not remotely the box office draw that Carlotta is, and fears a major financial backlash. To make matters worse, he is also incensed to discover that a monthly is reserved for the alleged “opera ghost,” as well as Box 5, one of their most prime house seats. His partner, Richard Dutton (Hyde-White), dismisses the notion as mere superstition among long-time employees of the theater, and assures Barton that everyone will fall in love with Christine once they hear her sing.

Before the opera begins, the audience is told that La Carlotta has suddenly taken ill and will be unable to perform. Many of the patrons groan and begin to leave, which causes Barton to panic. Dutton tells him that he’ll have a word with Carlotta and leaves, eventually running into and conversing with Inspector Hawkins (Harvey), who has been inspecting the crime scene and shockingly seems to know who is to blame for the murder, stating, “I have seen this work before. It isn’t the work of any phantom or ghost, it is the work of an artist who works in flesh.”

Back at the opera, the Phantom takes his seat in Box 5. He has arrived in time to experience the scene in the opera during which Mephistopheles appears to Faust, and we flash back to the Phantom’s origin. Many years ago, he was once Erik Destler, a struggling composer playing his music on the piano. A small, misshapen man, presumably an incarnation of the Devil, descends the stairs along with two beautiful women, and asks Destler who’s music it is. Destler relates that it is his own composition, and the little man proceeds to ask what Destler would give for people to love his music. Destler states that he would give anything, even his soul, for people to love his music. The small man smiles and places his hand over Destler’s face, resulting in the hideous scarring he has had ever since, stating that people will indeed love his music...but that is all they will ever love him for.

The Phantom stirs from his reverie in time to behold Christine taking the stage, and to his sheer delight, absolutely nailing the part of Marguerite. She receives a standing ovation from the ecstatic crowd, and an immensely pleased Phantom vacates the box, leaving behind a gold coin and a rose. Later, as he is walking among the filthy streets of a seedy part of London, the Phantom is propositioned by several prostitutes and nearly passes them all by until he finds one that reminds him of Christine. He pays her in gold and instructs her to leave the room in darkness, telling her that her name is “Christine” for the evening.

Celebrating Christine’s triumph at a restaurant later, Christine excitedly relates to Dutton how her father’s “angel” comes to her and teaches her. He asks her to marry him, but she replies that she cannot, at least, not right now. Meanwhile, Barton conspires with a newspaper opera critic to give Christine a scathing review, believing she will never be able to attain Carlotta’s status as the opera’s diva.

Back at the inn, the Phantom sits composing at a table in the corner, eyed by a trio of thugs sitting elsewhere. They remark to the bar maid that the man in the corner must be rich to pay her in gold, but she instructs them to leave him alone. One of the men goes over to meet the Phantom, who tells them in no uncertain terms that he wishes to remain left alone. As the Phantom leaves, the three men follow after him, intent on robbing him. As they confront him in a deserted alley, they quickly come to regret their decision as the Phantom, with almost supernatural ability, dispatches each of them easily in gruesome fashion without losing a breath.

The next morning, Meg arrives in Christine’s room with a copy of the newspaper, which contains a review of the opera. At first, Christine is excited, but she is horrified to find that the review speaks very ill of her performance. Meg attempts to comfort Christine, but Christine is now resigned to the idea that she has failed.

Meanwhile, at a local bath house, the man who wrote the scathing review heads into the steam room, where the Phantom awaits, his face covered by a towel so as to conceal his scarred visage. The two strike up a conversation which leads to the Phantom asking the reviewer to consider “revising” his opinion, which the reviewer indignantly refuses, stating that he would rather die than listen to that girl attempt to sing again. Angered, the Phantom states, “as you wish,” and wraps the towel around the reviewer’s head, tightening it until the man’s skull is crushed, then smashing his head into the tiled wall for good measure.

Later, Dutton arrives looking for Christine but just misses her as she sets out to visit her father’s grave. He follows after her. At the graveyard, Christine speaks to her father’s grave, stating that she felt his presence at the opera the other night but she doesn’t know if she can go on singing. As if on queue, the Phantom appears, playing the melody from “Don Juan Triumphant” on a violin, and beckons Christine to enter his coach. Dutton arrives at the cemetery but is unable to enter as the gates have mysteriously locked themselves. As he shouts for Christine, who can’t seem to hear him (or she may be in a trance, it’s hard to tell), the Phantom plays a high note on the violin which is so piercingly loud that it causes Dutton to drop to his knees, clutching his ears in pain. The coach rides off, leaving Dutton alone.

Back at the Phantom’s lair, Christine is reassured of her greatness by the Phantom, who tells her that in her dressing room, he was only able to teach her the words, but here in his home, he can teach her the real meaning of music. Christine comes across the book of music (the very same one we saw in the basement of the music library at the beginning of the film), and the film suddenly becomes a bit confusing, as for the first time, it is hinted that she displays memories of his music and his true identity as she learned from the beginning of the film, in 1989. She asks him to play. He refuses, stating that it is not finished yet, but she persists, and he gives in and is immediately both fascinated and distraught when she begins singing the words to his composition. He asks her how she knows his music, stating that no one has ever heard it before, and she states that she has sung them before. The Phantom appears to take this as a sign that they are fated to be together, and forces a wedding ring on her finger, telling her that she is now married to the music and that she cannot serve two masters. He then warns her to never see another.

Dutton meets with Inspector Hawkins in a church, where Hawkins tells Dutton the story of the Phantom, recapping what we’ve already seen previously. Dutton fills us in on a part of the legend we have not yet heard, however, that in order to kill the Phantom, one must destroy his music. We are then treated to the film’s “unmasking” sequence, in which the Phantom, now alone in his lair, uses a variety of surgical equipment to remove the pieces of flesh he steals from his victims, revealing his scarred face in full for the first time.

Back in her dressing room, Christine is trying to remove the ring to no avail when Meg arrives, confusing the ring for a wedding proposal from Dutton. Christine learns from Meg that the reviewer from the newspaper has been murdered, and she finally begins to realize how dire the situation is. They hear the front doorbell ring and Meg looks out the window, telling Christine that it is Dutton. She begs her to tell him that she is not there. Before leaving, Dutton tells Meg that Christine is in grave danger.

Later that evening, Christine attends a masked ball at the opera with several people of prominence in attendance, including Dutton, Barton, and Carlotta. Dutton, wanting to alert Christine to the danger posed by the Phantom, approaches Christine, who is afraid they will be seen together. Dutton tells her he will go get a coach immediately, and by tomorrow, this will all be behind them. She leaves with him, but unknown to them, the Phantom has been eavesdropping, attending the ball himself dressed in full Masque of the Red Death regalia. Carlotta spies him and, intrigued, dances with him when he makes his way to her. The two of them go off together to a secluded place, where smiling, she asks, “what will I think when I see your face?” The Phantom responds with, “you’ll just...die.” He allows her to remove the skull mask, but her terrified scream is cut off as he clamps his hand over her mouth.

Meanwhile, Inspector Hawkins is in attendance as well, though he is not dressed for the party. He is confronted by an old, wheezing man, who tells him that the thing he is searching for has already come and gone under his nose. It turns out that this man is the one the Phantom pays to clear out the rats in the catacombs beneath the opera. Hawkins demands that the man help him find the Phantom’s lair. As they leave, caterers begin to set up the food presentation for the evening. As one of the caterers prepares to ladle soup into individual bowls, Carlotta’s severed head bobs up in the pot, causing a mass panic as everyone screams and attempts to flee the ball. Amid the confusion, the Phantom appears and whisks Christine away while Dutton helplessly watches.

Dutton meets up with Inspector Hawkins and his team of officers, and together with the rat catcher, they give chase, descending into the catacombs. The rat catcher states that they will be overwhelmed by rats if he does not go on ahead to clear them out, and as he sets out on his own, he comes across the Phantom. As retribution for his betrayal, the Phantom kills him. The Phantom then stalks the catacombs, picking off the other officers one by one, using his superior knowledge of the labyrinthine tunnels to draw them apart from one another.

Dutton and Hawkins reach the Phantom’s lair and find a terrified Christine, but the Phantom appears. Dutton grapples with the Phantom. In the scuffle, Hawkins is pushed down a flight of stairs, appearing to have died. At this point, the Phantom has regained the upper hand, stabbing Dutton with a candle-lit spike and setting him on fire with the numerous candles. Christine takes this time to knock over more of the candelabras, setting the place ablaze. The Phantom then confronts Christine, but before he can grab her, Hawkins, who is revealed to still be barely alive, manages to shoot the Phantom multiple times.

Christine then rushes to knock one last candelabra into a mirror, shattering it in a moment that echoes the sand bag scene from the beginning of the film, and we are suddenly catapulted back to 1989, where Christine is lying on stage surrounded by a dozen people asking what happened. As she is coming to, someone is coming on stage and shouting for people to get back. A face appears, and Christine is shocked to see a man who looks just like Erik Destler looking down on her. It turns out this is Mr. Foster, the producer and major backer of the opera for which Christine was auditioning. Meg and Foster’s underling head off to haggle the terms of Christine’s contract while Foster invites Christine out for drinks.

Foster and Christine make a quick stop at Foster’s posh penthouse apartment for him to change, and he instructs her to make herself at home while she waits. When he gets to his dressing room, he notices a small puncture on his cheek in the mirror. Cursing, he opens a secret compartment, revealing...multiple elaborate masks of his face. He then picks up a scalpel, and with a grim look on his face, sets about removing his face.

Meanwhile, Christine is looking at Foster’s studio and accidentally switches on the computer, which immediately begins playing a MIDI version of “Don Juan Triumphant.” Horrified, Christine struggles to switch it off. When she finally finds the off switch, she hears Foster behind her, bearing a fresh face, and she confronts him, accusing him of being the Phantom. Foster (or Destler, as we have known for a few minutes now by this point), confirms it, stating that she has always been his inspiration and that she made it all possible. He again presents her with the choice...love or music. Lulling him into a false sense of security, she leans in as if to kiss him, then grabs a handful of flesh and rips his face off, revealing that the Phantom has become even more disfigured in the fire back in 1881. Christine grabs a nearby knife and stabs him in the stomach, then collects the sheet music and disks from the computer and dashes out of the apartment. Outside, she tears the music apart and tosses it all down the storm drain, and we hear the Phantom scream as he finally perishes.

A bit later, Christine is walking the streets alone and passes by a street performer playing a lively piece on the violin. As she passes by, he steps out onto the sidewalk and begins playing the refrain from “Don Juan Triumphant.” Christine looks back forlornly for a moment, then walks off into the night, intent to leave it all behind her. Here, the film ends, and credits roll.

Phantom of the Opera is a strange exercise in adapting a story for the screen; based purely on its own merits as a film, and not a derivative work, the film works in certain ways and fails miserably in some others. This is definitely a darker telling of the story we are all familiar with, portraying a truly sadistic Phantom who takes utter glee in gutting his victims; gore hound fans of 80’s slasher films are sure to get a kick out of the death scenes, but they feel shoehorned in to appeal to a very specific demographic when taken with the rest of the story. It’s nearly impossible to feel sympathetic for the Phantom, as the film tries so desperately to make us, when he’s such an evil, malicious creature. The decision to have part of the film set in modern day New York with ties to the supernatural and even time travel is an ambitious one, but ultimately fruitless as it really adds nothing to the story.

Thankfully, the film does not suffer too much for this, giving us respectable performances and a familiar plot. Kudos go especially to Robert Englund, who always pours himself into his roles 100%; this film obviously sought to capitalize on his fame as Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series and no doubt played a part in the decision to portray the Phantom’s scarred face as a pseudo burn victim, but at no point in the film does it ever feel like a rehash of the Freddy character, and for that, I’m grateful. Englund was contracted for a sequel to this film which was quickly abandoned upon the less-than-stellar response from critics. The sequel would have seen the Phantom prowling the sewers of modern-day New York. Englund has said that a script was indeed written, and he thought that it was superior to the first film, but rumor has it that the script for the film was re-written as 1992’s Danse Macabre, another starring vehicle for Englund. Any fans of this film interested in seeing how a sequel might have played out should queue that one up, but as recently as 2012, Englund stated that a true sequel is, by this point, “highly unlikely.”

I hope you enjoyed this review of 1989’s Phantom of the Opera. I definitely had a good time revisiting this fun, slightly cheesy, and oft-forgotten flick. If you have any suggestions for reviews, please feel free to utilize the contact form in the right column and send a message! Until next time, readers.